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    Budgets are clouding Florida's future

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 5, 2003

    Dark clouds loom today over the Sunshine State, and the forecast looks gloomy as far as the eye can see.

    As the Florida Legislature moves into the second half of its regular session, our elected officials may need a reminder about the condition of our state:

    Florida in 2003 is moving backward, surpassed by its Southern neighbors and sinking to the bottom nationally in rankings on crime, education, the condition of children, access to medical care and tax fairness. We invest too little in education and achieve mediocre education outcomes. We suffer from high crime rates and a poor record in caring for our children. We hang on to a regressive tax system that is outmoded and inadequate to both the current and future demands of this fast-growing state.

    Meanwhile, many elected officials seem uninterested in stopping Florida's slide to the bottom. They express pride in the governor's proposed budget and the one adopted by the House of Representatives, content with short-sighted, smoke-and-mirrors spending plans that may cause more pain for more Floridians than any in the state's modern history.

    Many of Florida's problems are familiar. According to the latest data, Florida is:

    -- 46th-worst among the states and the District of Columbia in adequacy of school funding, ahead of only two Southern states.

    -- 48th in estimated per capita public elementary and secondary school revenue.

    -- 48th in per capita state and local expenditures for higher education.

    -- 49th in estimated public high school graduation rate.

    -- Worst in the South in average salaries for starting teachers, adjusted for cost of living.

    -- 45th in state tax revenue as a percentage of personal income.

    -- One of the six worst states in fairness to taxpayers.

    -- One of the 11 worst states in adequacy of revenue from its tax system.

    -- First in violent crime per 100,000 population.

    To address those facts, the governor and House of Representatives offer budgets that are all pain and no gain. Drastic cuts would be made to juvenile justice prevention and treatment programs. The program for the medically needy would be slashed, Medicaid recipients would no longer receive vision, hearing or emergency dental coverage, state employees would go without a raise and pay more for health insurance, and affordable housing programs and public transportation funds would be cut. The state library would be dismembered.

    For public schools already underfunded, the proposed budgets would create more damage. Funds needed for normal student growth and other increased costs are dressed up to appear to pay for the first year of the class size amendment.

    Florida's higher education system would be heavily damaged. Community colleges would receive no money for new students, university funding would be cut almost $150-million, students would pay more in tuition to maintain the same level of instruction and services, need-based financial aid would remain static, the state would continue to renege on matching funds for private donations to colleges and universities, and construction money would be reduced.

    In the midst of these cuts, leaders find enough money to continue tax cuts that have drained state resources. Continued cuts in the intangibles tax -- the state's only tax directed toward wealthier Floridians -- come on top of $6-billion lost to the state through tax cuts over the last four years. The tax reductions already enacted before the 2003 legislative session -- most of which benefit those at the top of the income ladder -- will reduce state funds by a total of $20.5-billion from 2003-04 through 2010-11.

    That lost revenue would have paid for the class-size reduction amendment, enhancements to higher education, a decent child welfare system, and any number of other improvements to Floridians' quality of life.

    Yet the proposed budget, which the Senate appropriations chairman says is "built on baling wire, string and duct tape," is only ostensibly a "no-new-taxes" budget. The raid on trust funds, tuition increases and cost shifts to local governments amount to stealth taxes on some Floridians.

    Despite claims by the governor and some other elected officials, Florida's budget straits are not a result of the class size amendment. The seeds of the current crisis were sown years ago and worsened by short-sighted, ideologically driven budget policies. As Florida Trend magazine wrote in August 1999 about frequent warnings about the state's "rickety, unstable tax structure" that fails to meet the needs of the state:

    "The response has been the same one given to the boy who yelled out that the emperor has no clothes. Uncomfortable adults look the other way and pretend not to notice."

    And so it is today for many elected officials in Tallahassee. But interestingly, others are coming to grips with reality. Many in the Florida Senate, Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Retail Federation, Associated Industries, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other business and civic groups are beginning to discuss remedies that might brighten Florida's future.

    Extending the sales tax to Internet purchases, removing some exemptions from the sales tax, and even stopping the elimination of the estate tax are being discussed finally -- although with no encouragement from the governor and House speaker.

    So what now? How does Florida dig itself out of the hole in which it finds itself? Or will we even try? Are Floridians content to rank at the bottom of the states, or do we aspire to achieve more? If so, how do we get there, and at what costs?

    These are the questions concerned Floridians must ask themselves today, before the clouds over the state darken the lives of our citizens even more.

    What we need now is a full, sustained debate on Florida's future, involving all who believe we can aspire to more, to decide how we should move forward together to fulfill the Sunshine State's potential.

    -- Alan Stonecipher, former public information officer for the Florida Board of Regents and director of communications for gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, is a public policy consultant in Tallahassee.

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